I’ve brought this up before (perhaps more than I should) but I like to ask people a very important question upon meeting them.
If you were an animal, what animal would you be?
Truth be told, I’d be a squirrel. It’s not the most glamorous of animals but the comparison is pretty apt. I can be a bit… spastic. I also have a habit of “collecting” things that I almost immediately forget. Hence the 12 jars of cumin in my cupboard.
Don’t worry, I’m getting to the point, I promise (like I said, squirrel-spastic).
To be honest, I’ve never considered myself to be particularly attached to things. I don’t usually subscribe to the newest fashions so my closet remains pretty sparse. I don’t have a ton of furniture since I’ve moved frequently in the last few years. All in all, I’m pretty minimalist – that is I thought I was pretty minimalist until I recently did some light spring cleaning. It was then that I was confronted with the fact that even though I didn’t have much stuff… I still had an incredible amount of stuff!! Bags and bags of clothes to donate, a whole dish-set that I didn’t even use… 4 extra pairs of scissors! These were things that were just sitting quietly in my cupboards and drawers, not being used but also not being cut out from my space.
A squirrel indeed.
Seeing just how much I’d accumulated and noticing how much lighter I felt once I donated it was a huge eye-opener. Enough so that I couldn’t get a couple questions off my mind afterwards:
- Why exactly is it that we feel the need to keep things we don’t use (and continue adding to these collections)?
- Is there a way to get past the “must keep” mentality for a life that’s free from a habit of collecting?
Let me tell you, when a squirrel mind gets to thinking it doesn’t stop. Unless you write a post about it, that is. So let’s tackle these questions because squirrel or not, we’re definitely living in a consumer culture that makes collecting and upgrading the norm.
Why exactly is it that we feel the need to keep things we don’t use (and continue adding to these collections)?
There’s a reason that it’s difficult to cut the clutter from your life… namely, most stuff doesn’t necessarily feel like clutter. You enter into any room in your home and the things that fill it are there because you put them there. Maybe you needed it, liked it, inherited it, upgraded it, whatever – you decided at one point to keep the items in your space.
There are tons of reasons why we feel we should keep things. A few include:
- Items are connected to sentimental value or nostalgia
- You think you might need an item “one day”
- You don’t want to get rid of something because it would represent a lost investment
- You simply don’t know what to do with it
- It’s been with you for a certain amount of time… therefore you feel you have a responsibility to keep it
I’ve been there. When I cleaned out my childhood room so that my parents could stage the house to sell I was forced to confront my stuff. Sure, it was a little trip down memory lane but eventually I had to face the hard question – keep it, or cut it? I hadn’t thought about most of that stuff in years. In most cases, I didn’t even know it was there! You’d think that having that time and space from these items would make it easier to get rid of these unused things. Nope. In all honesty, it felt easier to keep the stuff rather than to make the choice. That is, until the next time I moved and was forced to consider all my belongings again.
Is there a way to get past the “must keep” mentality for a life that’s free from a habit of collecting?
The easy answer to this questions: yes. The process, however, isn’t always so simple. It’s difficult to make the jump from buying and keeping to cutting and minimizing your purchases. But that being said – it can be done! It just takes a bit of work.
Graham Hill gave a Ted Talk linking ownership of fewer possessions with increased happiness. Essentially, he made the point that excess stuff in our life equals excess weight on our mind. His website is devoted to helping people cut out the noise of extra possessions in order to create an environment of the highest utility. His advice includes tips like sharing items with family or friends and even “moving into a smaller place” to limit the area that you can fill. Ultimately, he encourages you to edit your life.
But how exactly can you do that when you’re still attached to your stuff?
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Using the “red pen” to edit your life
Editing your possessions is a tough challenge, particularly when items have sentimental meaning attached to them. But at the end of the day, there’s a difference between “storing for purpose and use” and storing “just in case.” That’s where a little bit of mindfulness comes in handy. Be intentional with how you fill your space to begin with and also how you maintain that space. Take poll of your items and be critical of their purpose or function in your life. In a few words, qualify your stuff.
For example, you probably don’t use your weedwacker every single day. Most likely, you use it a couple times throughout the year. The rest of the time you keep it stored away in your shed or garage. In that way, it’s a low-use item with a moderate value in your life.
Conversely, imagine you have a sewing machine that you’ve inherited from your great, great aunt. You’ve only used it once and were so horrified by the ill-sewn results that you packed it up and put it in the back of your closet. You don’t want to get rid of it because a small part of you still believes you might get into the sewing hobby one day. In this way, it’s a zero use item with low value in your current circumstances. We have a tendency to keep things for the fear that one day we’ll need them. In some ways, this makes perfect sense. There’s no reason to continue buying an item if we treat the original with care. But keep an item for the sake of keeping it doesn’t always make sense (as seen in the sewing machine example above).
That being said, things change depending on frequency of use. If a high quality refrigerator will last a family for years then it of course makes sense to keep it. Additionally, a refrigerator is a staple of the kitchen. That’s why opting for a quality appliance is a smart investment despite the initial high cost. It’s a high use item with a high value in your life.
Taking this into account, you can make a handy dandy little chart to categorize your items like such:
The real function of qualifying your items is to force your mind into considering why you keep something and to help you make the leap to cutting things that are low use and low value items in your life.
An Alternate to Material Collecting: Choose experiences rather than things
Even though our society has put value on owning nice things, there’s evidence against the fact that more stuff makes you happy. Ownership of physical belongings can give you a sense of “property pride” but that doesn’t translate to overall fulfillment or satisfaction. Stuff doesn’t talk back. Stuff doesn’t offer the scope of human experience. Stuff doesn’t have heart. So in regards to how we can continue to live a full life without doing so through the consumerism of buying more, consider the value of the things that do contribute to a rich life: experiences. Studies have shown that while you often lose interest in physical items over time, you’re likely to reflect on experiences – even bad ones – with more affection and nostalgia over time. Value of an experience ages well. Value of possessions doesn’t always.
Spending on experiences adds to your arsenal of memories which is a hugely valuable investment in it’s own right. Experiences could come in the form of a meal out with friends, a trip or vacation, a class that teaches us a new skill, etc. These are things that can’t be taken away, that can be revisited from anywhere, and that ultimately become the plot-line for your life’s story. A pretty worthwhile investment indeed.
So next time, instead of reaching for new, upgraded housewares think about the life they’ll lead within your space. Will they be used for the long-haul or simply sit in a corner until they’re ultimately tossed out? And consider instead – doesn’t a life experience deserve a fighting chance at earning your funding and attention? Comparing between my extra cheese grater and any of my road-trips to the beach – I’d say experience trumps it.
Image Credit: daitoZEN